Susan Finegan is a Litigation Partner at Mintz Levin. She currently serves as Chair of the Pro Bono Committee and Chair of the Hiring Committee, and as the firm’s full-time Pro Bono Partner. Susan is a member of the BBA Council; she previously served as Co-Chair of the BBA’s Delivery of Legal Services Section and was a member of the BBA’s Task Force on Expanding the Civil Right to Counsel. Susan is Chair of the Supreme Judicial Court’s Standing Committee on Pro Bono Legal Services and is a member of the Access to Justice Commission and Commission on Judicial Conduct, as well as a former member of the Judicial Nominating Commission.
1. How have you been shaping and developing the role of Pro Bono Partner as the first full-time Pro Bono Partner in Mintz Levin’s history? What legacy do you aim to leave?
The firm created the role of Pro Bono Partner in 2007 upon my return to the firm after three years as Legal Director of the Victim Rights Law Center. At the time, the firm believed that it could benefit from devoting the resources of a partner to manage the more than 400 ongoing pro bono matters in our eight offices. While the firm had always focused on giving back to the community since its founding in 1933, pro bono management started with the adoption of a pro bono policy and a pro bono committee in the late 1980s. Hiring a partner-level attorney dedicated full-time to this important firm effort was a natural extension of that legacy.
My initial focus was getting up to speed on the clients and staffing, and to providing more organizational oversight. After that, the pro bono committee and I were able to look more strategically at what pro bono work the firm was doing and analyze the participation and focus of each section and office of the firm. While a significant percentage of our pro bono work continues to be focused on domestic violence and sexual assault, we are always looking for new ways to address the legal needs of the communities we serve. We also started working with some of our in-house counsel on joint pro bono projects. Another positive aspect of my job at this time was to start working closely with the other pro bono professionals in the city; our pro bono community is a very welcoming and collaborative one.
Over the last several years, in addition to these firm roles, I’ve been fortunate to work outside the firm on statewide pro bono efforts through my work on the Access to Justice Commission and, later, as chair of the Supreme Judicial Court’s Standing Committee on Pro Bono Legal Services. From those perspectives, I’ve worked with others to make a statewide impact by encouraging more attorneys to do pro bono work, particularly those who haven’t traditionally participated, such as in-house counsel and retired lawyers. To be able to leverage the resources of a place like Mintz to assist with these more global efforts has been extremely useful.
In terms of legacy, the statewide efforts have been very energizing – new programs have been developed, such as the Access to Justice Fellows Program that I’ve helped develop with other colleagues; rule changes have been adopted; and new pro bono recognition programs for attorneys have been created. Hopefully the legacy of these statewide efforts will be to encourage more attorneys to engage in pro bono work, and ultimately to help more people in need. From a firm standpoint, I could point to a number of clients I’ve assisted, or different initiatives that I’m proud of, but the most impactful legacy would be to have nurtured a generation of Mintz Levin attorneys who continue to do pro bono work throughout their careers because they started practicing at a firm where that was not only encouraged and supported, but expected.
2. What lessons have you learned from your extensive experience working with the judiciary and judicial committees? How has it informed your leadership style?
Being involved in the Access to Justice Commission and SJC’s Pro Bono Committee has reinforced what an important role the judiciary can play in ensuring that low- and moderate-income people in the Commonwealth can access the justice system. There are so many self-represented litigants in the courts today – up to 80 or 90 percent in some courts – and there is a lack of funding for civil legal services and for the courts. With that in mind, it’s incredibly important to have members of the judiciary, as well as other bar leaders, focus on these important issues. I’ve seen firsthand how having a judge dedicated at least part-time to such issues at both the Trial Court – Advisor for Access to Justice Initiatives First Justice Dina Fein – and at the appellate level – Co-Chair of the Access to Justice Commission Justice Ralph Gants – can have a significant and positive impact.
As for other committees, such as the Commission on Judicial Conduct and the Judicial Nominating Commission, it has been an honor to work with other dedicated volunteers on behalf of the judiciary. These appointments have allowed me to think about the role of the judiciary and the impact a judge can have on litigants that come before him or her, both negative and positive. From my perspective, leadership in the judiciary is primarily about temperament and respect – how to be a strong leader in a courtroom while at the same time exhibiting patience for those who may not understand what is going on. That has helped my own practice in representing pro bono clients, many of whom do not understand the court system, and most of whom have never experienced having someone actually listen to them and explain what is going to happen.
3. What are some challenges of working on pro bono cases? How do you train attorneys to handle cases, i.e. sensitive pro bono cases, that are outside their practice area?
Most of our pro bono referral agencies provide training on substantive legal issues, and many provide mentoring as well. In addition, attorneys at the firm have developed expertise on many areas of pro bono practice, so there is often an internal mentor for attorneys who need one. And, on each pro bono case we undertake, there is a partner assigned to the matter. That being said, the most difficult challenges tend to arise from the non-legal aspects of working with low income clients. These run the gamut from understanding cultural differences, overcoming language barriers, or recognizing signs of trauma or mental illness. And often attorneys will develop a close bond with their clients, and won’t know how to establish appropriate boundaries when clients call at all hours of the day and night for non-legal advice or with questions that are outside the scope of the representation. Last, it’s important to let attorneys know that they may not have all the answers, but that they need to know what questions to ask, and to whom, so they can best advise their client. Some of these aspects of practice just take time to develop, so is it important to know that you have resources throughout the legal community – within your firm, at another firm, or at a legal services organization – to ask questions in a safe environment.
4. How does choosing to engage in pro bono and legal services work exhibit leadership as a lawyer?
We are fortunate to practice law in Massachusetts, which has a rich tradition of pro bono legal service. With civil legal services funding decreasing precipitously, and with courts flooded with self-represented litigants, now, more than ever, we can make a difference through this important work. As lawyers, we have special skills that can, for example, save a person from homelessness, help a client gain access to benefits to make ends meet, assist a nonprofit with legal needs so it can continue to provide critical services, or save someone’s life by helping them obtain asylum. Engaging in pro bono work demonstrates leadership because, in doing so, we as lawyers are giving back to members of our community who desperately need our help.